Struggle for the Valtelline Pass

For twenty years during the early stages of the Thirty Years’ War, the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria struggled with the French-supported Grisons for control of the Alpine pass through which Spanish troops from Milan could travel into Germany and points north. The Capitulation of Milan in 1639 left the pass open to the passage of Spanish troops.

Summary of Event

Historically, the Valtelline region—from Lake Como to the Inn River—functioned as a major passageway through the Alps that linked Lombardy with northern Europe. Because of its strategic importance, it has often been the site of conflict for its control. In 1335, the region was annexed by the duke of Milan, and it remained in Milanese hands until 1500, when King Louis XII of France drove out the Milanese and established France as protector over the region, a situation that held for a dozen years. [kw]Struggle for the Valtelline Pass (July, 1620-Sept., 1639)
[kw]Valtelline Pass, Struggle for the (July, 1620-Sept., 1639)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July, 1620-Sept., 1639: Struggle for the Valtelline Pass[0850]
Diplomacy and international relations;July, 1620-Sept., 1639: Struggle for the Valtelline Pass[0850]
Italy;July, 1620-Sept., 1639: Struggle for the Valtelline Pass[0850]
Valtelline Pass
Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)

In 1512, the pope, with the Holy League and the League of the local Alpine Grisons Grisons (Graubünden, Grigioni, or Grays, a federation of three regional leagues who were unaffiliated with the Swiss cantons), ousted the French garrisons and established an “eternal union” of the Valtelline with the Grison confederacy in 1513.

During the sixteenth century, many of the Grisons and Valtellinese converted to Calvinism and, by the end of the century, leaned politically toward the France of King Henry IV, a stance necessitated by the seizure and control of Milan by the Spanish Habsburgs Habsburgs;Spain
Spain;Habsburgs . Spain sought a right to unimpeded passage through the region, which would link Spanish Milan with Habsburg Austria and the Spanish Netherlands in the lower Rhine region.

Around 1600, the Spanish built El Fuente at Monticchio, a powerful fortress at the southern entrance to the valley, and sought to isolate the Grisons by prohibiting trade with the region. Despite a 1603 alliance with the French and with Venice, the Grisons agreed to allow the Spanish to use the pass and to recruit troops in the area.

Tensions among the region’s politico-religious factions intensified in the later 1610’. The majority desired political alignment with France against Spain, while smaller groups of Protestants sought Venetian help and the pro-Spanish group remained satisfied. Meanwhile, arguments between the Austrian (Habsburg) and Spanish thrones ended when the Habsburgs and Spain concluded an agreement of cooperation in March, 1617, setting the scene for intense coordination between the two Catholic dynasties. The duchy of Savoy controlled the western passes, and neutral Swiss cantons, generally unfriendly to the Catholic Spaniards, held the central passes, which left a single corridor between Milan and the north.

In July, 1618, Protestant communities that were led by preachers such as the fiery George Jenatsch Jenatsch, George banded together and formed an assembly, at which many pro-Spanish Catholic leaders were condemned in absentia and a few were executed. The Catholic leaders, including Rudolf Planta, Planta, Rudolf fled to Milan and Innsbruck, at which they plotted their return. Two years later, in July, 1620, one hundred armed men, led by a Valtelline aristocrat, entered the Valtelline and moved through the countryside for two weeks, massacring Protestant leaders and others at random—perhaps as many as 600—in the so-called Sacred Slaughter Sacred Slaughter (1620) .

An army of Protestant Swiss and Grisons, led by the charismatic pastor Jenatsch, marched into the region to restore order, at which the Spanish declared the Valtelline under its own protection and dispatched into the valley an army of twenty thousand men under the command of the duke of Feria. The Austrians blocked the northern entrance to the valley, so Bern and Zurich sent more than three thousand men to support the Grisons. On September 17, 1620, two armies met at Tirano in a bloody if indecisive battle that left the Spanish in control of the pass. With the death of Spain’s Phillip III, Spanish resolve weakened and Pope Gregory XV Gregory XV brokered the Treaty of Madrid Madrid, Treaty of (1621) (April, 1621), which returned all to conditions that existed before the hostilities. Spain’s new king, Philip IV Philip IV (king of Spain) , did not press his claims further lest he draw in the French. Nonetheless, the Catholics sent diplomats to Rome and Madrid to plead the case for Protestant oppression in the Valtelline and their fear of Protestant reprisals.

Since Europe was rapidly sliding into the Thirty Years’ War, Spanish access to Germany had never been more vital. Through a 1622 treaty, the Grisons retained control of the Valtelline but Spain obtained full rights of passage. Five weeks later, France, Venice, and the duchy of Savoy formed a league against Spain to enforce the Treaty of Madrid, which had limited Spain’s options in the Valtelline. In October, the count-duke of Olivares Olivares, count-duke of named a new chief minister under Philip IV, but the minister would not risk war with France because of an Alpine pass, regardless of that pass’s importance. In early 1623, the pope stepped in again, and both sides agreed to allow a force of papal troops to control the pass and guarantee the liberties of the people. Though some considered making the valley a feudatory of the Papacy, France blocked the idea.

As the war to the north continued, the French minister Cardinal de Richelieu Richelieu, Cardinal de saw to it that the French-Venitian-Savoy league was renewed (1624) and the effort made to return the pass to the Protestant Grisons. Citing violations of the most recent agreement, Swiss troops working for Richelieu invaded Grison territory, including the Valtelline, which secured the area for the French, who then used it as leverage to aid the Savoyards in their struggle to control Genoa (spring, 1625). One year later, Richelieu found his position among the warring states of Europe to be untenable, and he decided to quit the conflict and his Savoyard and Venetian allies. The Treaty of Monzon (1626) Monzon, Treaty of (1626) granted the Valtelline self-rule guaranteed by the Papacy, Spain, and France, with Spain and France having de facto right of passage. The Grisons and Valtelline Protestants received nothing. Through the next decade, tens of thousands of imperial and pro-imperial troops marched through the Valtelline, fueling the Habsburg cause in the great European struggle and ravaging the area.

To halt this aggression, Richelieu appointed the gallant Huguenot general Henri de Rohan Rohan, Henri de . Imperial troops had abandoned the Valtelline according to the terms of the Treaty of Cherasco (1630) Cherasco, Treaty of (1630) and Rohan was to support the Grisons in reestablishing Grison/French dominance. With Jenatsch as an important local agent, Rohan marched into the region in March and April, 1635. The Austrians and Spaniards rapidly responded and invaded the Valtelline in June, but Rohan defeated both forces during the next few months and secured the Valtelline for France. The Grisons soon realized that the French were not about to relinquish to them control of the area. On September 24, 1636, many of the Grison leaders, including Jenatsch, met at Silvaplana and decided to abandon the French and seek an Austrian alliance. The emperor promised religious freedom and Grison rule in Valtelline in return for free passage, and the deal was struck. The Grison leaders treated Rohan with dignity as they escorted him out of the valley following the anti-French uprising of March, 1637. After Spain was included in further negotiations, the agreement was sealed in September, 1639, in the Capitulation of Milan Milan, Capitulation of (1639) .


Control of the Valtelline, Bormio, and Chiavenna was a matter of local interest until the Thirty Years’ War and the Spanish-Austrian alliance gave this important passageway its international importance. The fortunes of all the major powers—and several minor ones—in the war depended upon which side held the passes. For the Grisons, however, the only matter of importance was local autonomy, regardless of who guaranteed it. Jenatsch, a Calvinist, took the step to become Roman Catholic as part of his deal with the Austrians, abandoning his confessional loyalty to further his patriotic cause. The struggle over the Valtelline was thus both a matter of grand military strategy and of local aspirations for self-rule. In the end, the French failed to thwart the Spanish-imperial interests and the Grisons proved tolerant and tolerable lords of the region until the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

Further Reading

  • Elliott, J. H. Richelieu and Olivares. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Elliott’s work includes a discussion of the role of the Valtelline struggle in French-Spanish relations in the early years of the Thirty Years’ War.
  • Levi, Anthony. Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2000. Levi discusses the Valtelline and Spain in the context of the foreign policy of Richelieu’s France.
  • Osborn, Toby. Dynasty and Diplomacy in the Court of Savoy: Political Culture and the Thirty Years’ War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A bold study of the roles of Savoy in the war, including the League of Lyon.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years’ War. New York: Routledge, 1997. A standard account of the war in English, with discussion of the Valtelline wars.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Louis XIII; Count-Duke of Olivares; Philip IV; Cardinal de Richelieu. Valtelline Pass
Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)